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August 29, 2003

United on Immigration

The Forward does a grave disservice to its readers in its story “Groups Rebuking Feds’ Move on Asylum” (August 22) in citing Stephen Steinlight of the Center for Immigration Studies. He has been used as a source for several stories relating to immigration — always as the opposing voice when covering this very complicated and nuanced subject. The Forward has had to resort to this unrepresentative spokesman to create controversy where none exists. In a remarkably unified voice, the organized American Jewish community has consistently argued for generous immigration policies coupled with strong and effective security programs and has rejected Steinlight’s anti-immigrant positions.

As for Steinlight’s contention that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society’s letter to Bush administration officials was “overbroad and oversweeping,” we did not question the government’s right to enforce the law, but raised objections to the timing of prosecutions of asylum-seekers who use false documents and their impact on due process protections and on America’s historic commitment to providing safe haven for refugees.

Perhaps of broader concern is the growing evidence of government ambivalence toward, if not outright withdrawal from, America’s commitment to refugees. Over the past year, the number of refugee arrivals has fallen far short of the president’s refugee admission target. It appears that though there remains an official endorsement of providing safe haven to those suffering from persecution, this becomes eroded and stymied by selective and unprecedented enforcement measures at the operational level, such as the document-fraud prosecution policy. As a people that has historically faced persecution and has availed itself of America’s national value of affording protection to persecuted minorities, the Jewish communal letter to administration officials is a reaffirmation of a core Jewish commitment to the refugee program and immigrant rights.

The story also incorrectly characterizes the Jewish community’s appeal. HIAS and the other major Jewish groups were not aware of any national policy to prosecute asylum seekers; rather, we think that this current policy arises from a misconstrual of time-honored procedures and legal obligations. Yet, from the headline and the lead paragraph one would incorrectly assume that we were “rebuking” a Bush administration policy. In fact, the letter we wrote asks that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and Attorney General John Ashcroft work to prevent the unlawful prosecution of legitimate asylum seekers and to see that this practice is ended in those areas where asylum seekers are being placed at risk.

Robert D. Aronson

Chair, Public Policy Committee

Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society

Minneapolis, Minn.

Birthright Consensus

As dean of Mayanot, one of Birthright Israel’s largest trip providers, I would like to respond to your article about the accusations against Birthright Israel (“Orthodox Rabbis Forbid Birthright Trips for Youths,” August 15, 2003). I applaud Birthright for searching for a consensus with which every Jew can feel comfortable; this is reflected in the various ideological streams of the different trip providers.

It is not our job to argue over hekhshers but rather to find common ground where every Jew can have a meaningful Israel experience. Birthright Israel is designed for the vast majority of young Jews who have minimal Jewish background, and for this constituency it is a powerful and inspiring experience that will last a lifetime. In fact, as a Jewish educator I would assert that Birthright Israel is the Jewish world’s most exciting and creative project in recent times, and by far the most successful at promoting experiential Jewish education and Jewish identity and pride.

I am proud to say that Mayanot brought over 1,100 students to Israel this summer alone, despite the security situation, and we are delighted to include participants from Reform, Conservative and Orthodox backgrounds. I can state unequivocally that these students from diverse streams feel comfortable with the religious balance that Birthright Israel provides. Is Birthright Israel appropriate for charedi yeshiva students? That is a question that should be discussed within that community. However, for all of us who are concerned about the future of the Jewish people, Birthright Israel is a blessing that should be celebrated.

Rabbi Shlomo Gestetner


Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies

Jerusalem, Israel

Dr. Laura’s Thin Skin

So radio talk-show host Laura Schlessinger has announced that she will no longer practice Judaism, noting that she receives much positive fan mail from Christian listeners, while the mail from Jews is scant and what arrives is usually painfully negative toward her (“Dr. Laura Loses Her Religion,” Aug. 15).

Is this the logical thought process of a nationally prominent giver of advice to others? If one markets oneself as a polarizing espouser of controversial views on hot-button issues, doesn’t one become a lightning rod of sharp opinions? Besides, what would society be like if we all changed religion whenever we are criticized for our views?

Nevertheless, the covenant between the Lord and our forefathers is intact and eternal and should Dr. Laura have a change of heart, it is there for her. Rather than saying, “Dr. Laura you are meshuge, good riddance,” we should say, “Dr. Laura, get a grip.”

Richard H. Schoen

Reisterstown, Md.

A Decision for the Bank

The Anti-Defamation League’s position regarding the resignation of the Glenview State Bank’s president was misrepresented in the August 15 article, “Bank Head Steps Down After Praising Hitler.” To clarify the ADL’s role, we never asked that President David Raub be removed from his position. Such action was a decision for Raub and the bank’s leadership.

Shoshana Buchholz-Miller

Associate Director

Greater Chicago/Upper Midwest Region

Anti-Defamation League

Chicago, Ill.

Give Probe a Chance

Your report on an investigation by Poland’s official Institute of National Remembrance into a massacre at Koniuchy on January 29, 1944, in which Jewish partisans allegedly participated (“Poles Open Probe Into Jewish Role In Killings,” August 8), deals more harshly with the Canadian Polish Congress, which called for the investigation, than with the alleged perpetrators.

When the Simon Wiesenthal Center routinely calls for the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, and American Jews support a U.S. Justice Department program to denaturalize and deport Nazi collaborators, why the suspicion of hidden political motives for an investigation of Koniuchy and a similar massacre on May 8, 1943, at Naliboki?

I would agree that the Institute of National Remembrance can be relied upon to conduct a full and fair investigation, as it did into the massacre at Jedwabne. I only hope that its conclusions will not be ignored.

Charles Chotkowski

Director of Research

Holocaust Documentation Committee

Polish American Congress

Fairfield, Conn.

Critics Are Not Censors

In his August 1 column, “A Passion for Censorship,” David Klinghoffer writes that we should not worry about anti-Jewish violence arising from Mel Gibson’s upcoming film “The Passion” based on the Christian Gospels because it could not possibly be more antisemitic or inflammatory than the books themselves. He argues that since these writings have not led to antisemitic incidents in recent years neither should this new film. He further suggests that if Jewish critics “edit” Gibson’s movie, we will be leaving ourselves open to Christian censorship of the Talmud, as occurred in medieval Europe.

One reason the incendiary Gospel passages cited by Klinghoffer have not led to pogroms in the last generation is that the progressive wing of the Catholic Church has rethought and reinterpreted those words to blunt their antisemitic impact. They have taught that Jesus himself was a Jew, that he had both his supporters and opponents among the many Jewish factions and religious streams, and that it was the Romans who executed him. They have further taught that whatever the responsibility of certain Jews regarding Jesus’ arrest, this did not mean that all Jews of Jesus’ day bore responsibility, nor did it mean that there was a divine curse against all Jews forever.

In order to gauge whether Gibson’s film might cause anti-Jewish violence, we should ask not what words exist in the Gospels, but rather how is the film teaching them. Is Jesus portrayed as a Jew? Are the Jews of his day depicted as a unified group that unanimously sought his death, rather than a heterogeneous community? Are the Romans depicted as agents of the Jews rather than the imperial rulers of Judea? Is crucifixion falsely portrayed as a Jewish, rather than Roman, means of execution? Are the Jews of Jesus’ day portrayed in a way that links them to contemporary Jews? Are the Jews depicted as divinely and eternally cursed?

It is appropriate for Catholic and Jewish scholars and organizations to raise these questions and, if the answers are troubling, to criticize the film. Their questioning contributes to America’s marketplace of ideas and has nothing to do with state-ordered censorship. Nor does exercising freedom of speech somehow invite the return of the antisemitic medieval Christian monarchs who censored and burned our Talmud.

Jeremy Simcha Garber

South Orange, N.J.

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